Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

The Butterfly (in Your Stomach) Effect

Atlus’s Megami Tensei series (MegaTen for short) has a storied history commencing with its inauguration on Nintendo’s Famicom system with the Digital Devil Story games, although the franchise wouldn’t gain exposure outside Japan until a few console generations later. Among the early MegaTen games to cross the Pacific was the spinoff title Revelations: Persona, which featured heavy Americanization despite its blatant Japanese setting and origins. A later port to the PlayStation Portable, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona would rectify the translation issues, but is the latest incarnation worth playing?

The game opens with a group of Japanese high school students dabbling in fortunetelling that ultimately nets them the ability to summon the eponymous Personas, with the rest of the narrative involving a group of up to five pupils dealing with the various supernatural phenomena that plague their city. Despite the much-improved localization (its only weak spot being a few odd naming decisions), the storyline isn’t anything special, with only a few brief blurbs about each major character when introduced, and only the post-game epilogues wrapping up the events in an okay fashion.

The meat of the game lies in its mechanics, with enemies randomly-encountered (though oddly, the actual enemy sets are finite) on the town overworld and in first-person dungeons. The player’s party of up to five characters, which they can set in a formation in the game menus or adjust within battle (at the expense of the moving characters losing their turns), face a set of enemies, which they can attack with equipped melee weapons (except for one character’s bow and arrows) or firearms, defend to reduce damage, use consumable items, use SP-consuming Persona abilities, or change equipped Personas (which like changing formation wastes a character’s turn).

Personas, with each character able to equip up to three, play a significant role in the game mechanics, and have a ranking of up to eight that increases with repeated use, and unlocks more powerful abilities. Interestingly, all of each Persona’s skills have a fixed amount of SP to use, and given that walking on the overworld and in dungeons gradually restores SP, players can liberally use skills, which the game evidently encourages. However, it’s pretty much a crapshoot as to how many uses will advance a Persona’s rank, since the game doesn’t seem to have any visible tracking of this.

Eliminating all enemies nets the player’s characters experience for occasional level-ups, with the player able to freely distribute three points into the main protagonist’s stats, money, occasional items, and experience for equipped Personas (which is separate from character experience). One interesting twist from other turn-based Japanese RPGs is that characters can obtain bonus experience if characters performed commands such as exploiting enemy weaknesses, and killing a party with a new monster type will allow the player in future battles with the same type to conveniently view such information. There is the slight catch of leveling among the player’s characters being inconsistent, however.

Another significant facet of combat in Persona is the ability to converse with enemies akin to other MegaTen titles, with each character having different actions to perform, such as Persuade, Chat, Dance, Lie, Bribe, and so forth. How enemies react to these commands depends upon their variant personality types, such as Foolish, Timid, Haughty, and the like. There are four spectrums of enemy reactions, which include anger (indicated by red), fear (indicated by blue), joy (indicated by orange), and interest (indicated by yellow), with each colored area enlarging in a triangle whose tip ultimately contacts the center of a diamond indicator.

If the player has executed certain conversation commands enough times, one or more of the enlarged spectrums will envelop the whole diamond indicator, with what happens next depending upon which feeling dominates. Anger will most likely result in an enemy party of the same type angrily leaving battle or executing a surprise attack against the player’s party, fear may make foes leave combat, joy may result in a supplemental item or experience for the negotiating character, and interest gives players the chance of obtaining a spell card from an adversary.

Spell cards sport multiple functions, and players can carry up to twelve at any given time. For one, if a player has one of a certain type, they can converse with an enemy party in battle to get them to retreat, which may result in supplemental items or money, and allows players to effectively skip fights with said adversarial types. Another function is that the player can visit Velvet Rooms to combine spell cards into new Personas, which players can create ten levels above that of the main protagonist, although characters can’t necessarily use new ones if their levels aren’t high enough.

There’s also a limit as to how many Personas the player can have available, which necessitates that they retire certain ones, in which case, if their rank is maxed, they receive a special item such as a piece of equipment. The battle system has other quirks, such as the ability to have all characters in combat repeat their last actions without having to go through the combat menus again, the ability to have all character attack with their main weapons or firearms, and so forth. There’s also the ability to skip ability animations, which can somewhat speed up fights that can otherwise drag out at times.

Ultimately, the battle system has plenty good ideas, but players may find themselves needing to grind character and Persona levels to stand a chance at beating the game, even on the easiest difficulty, and even with the faster mode of combat, battles can drag on at times, which makes the ability to skip some fights a godsend. A spell and item become available to nullify encounters with weak demons, although the latter becomes temporarily unavailable to buy late in the game, and it would have been nice if there were in-game tracking of what conversation commands work with what specific enemy types.

While the game interface is an improvement over that in the PlayStation version, given the altered overworld navigation and better menus, there are still issues like the inconvenient placement of save points, with occasional long enemy-infested stretches before bosses without chances to record progress (with none retained upon the player’s death). Occasionally as well is poor direction on how to advance the main storyline, and the diagonal-only movement in chambers feels award, with no ability to move in other directions. Ultimately, Persona doesn’t interact with players as well as it could have.

The soundtrack is also different from that in the PlayStation version, with the main battle theme being much better (although more diversity in regular combat music would have been welcome), and other good vocal tracks presenting themselves throughout the game. Some of the dungeon tracks are good as well, though many are forgettable. There’s also voice acting during anime cutscenes and in battle, which is good aside from the characters shouting “Persona!” when conjuring their abilities. A smidgeon of the weak themes from the original version do remain, such as that playing during a boss fight with a mechanical rodent, but otherwise, the aurals aren’t bad at all.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the port, aside from the gorgeous-looking anime cutscenes, is the visuals, with the walls and floors of first-person dungeons and areas such as malls having blurry, pixilated texturing, and the characters sprites within chambers showing no emotion, though they do contain good anatomy, and some of the artistic design such as the character portraits looks good. The combat graphics, though, are lackluster, with the player’s characters and the enemy fighting on a floating platform against a psychedelic background, although some of the ability animations look nice. Overall, the game’s visual presentation is well below average.

Finally, given the different difficulty settings and significant postgame content such as the Snow Queen quest, the remake has plentiful lasting appeal, though not everyone will appreciate the grinding.

In summation, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, while it does bear many improvements over the PlayStation release such as the improved translation, still contains issues that carry over from the original version such as the forced level-grinding, the weak control, the average plotline, and especially the dated visuals, but it does have some good music and significant postgame content. Regardless, it doesn’t have nearly the polish or enjoyability that its successors beyond both halves of the second game bear, and is one of the weaker entries of the mechanically-diverse Megami Tensei franchise.

The Good:
+Personas and negotiation systems can be fun to mess around with.
+Much-improved localization over PlayStation version.
+Some good music.
+Significant post-game content.

The Bad:
-Battle system has niggling issues.
-Weak control.
-Average plotline.
-Lackluster visuals.

The Bottom Line:
Better than the PlayStation version, but not flawless.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 3.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 5.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment